Queer in more ways than one: “Carmilla”, a Gothic literary classic

Think of literary vampires, and everyone’s first association is bound to be Bram Stoker’s Dracula hailing from that dark, mystifying land of Transylvania. Enormously influential as it has been, Dracula had a notable antecedent in the form of an even more ground-breaking, yet lesser known, vampiric antagonist – Carmilla – created by the Irish novelist Sheridan Le Fanu almost three decades prior.

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

First published as a series in The Dark Blue magazine in 1871 and 1872, Carmilla is everything you would expect from a classic of Gothic horror, and then some more. Similar to Dracula, the novella is set in a remote continental European locale (Styria, in this case, in present-day Austria), in an old castle surrounded by a thick forest. Typical of Gothic literature, the atmosphere has that lovely mysterious feel throughout, with no shortage of moonlit scenery. Yes, the book is brimming with Gothic tropes, yet it doesn’t feel all that stereotypical. That’s probably due to the originality of the character of Carmilla herself.

Told as a first-person narrative, the story is told by a woman called Laura. At the time of the events described in the book she was a lonely teenage girl living in a schloss (a castle) with her British father. Through a curious set of circumstances, they end up taking in a girl of Laura’s age – Carmilla, previously unknown to them. The girls immediately strike a close friendship, but Laura could tell there was something odd about her new and unexpected bosom friend.

Carmilla was “slender, and wonderfully graceful”, “her complexion was rich and brilliant; her features were small and beautifully formed; her eyes large, dark, and lustrous; her hair was quite wonderful” etc. In contrast to all that, it was her character and strange behaviour that gave Laura a cause for concern: “There was a coldness, it seemed to me, beyond her years, in her smiling melancholy persistent refusal to afford me the least ray of light.” Carmilla would avoid going out during daylight and refuse to take part in anything remotely religious. She was very secretive and mysterious, unwilling to reveal anything about her background, except to say that she came from a family “ancient and old”.

As the days go by, Carmilla’s behaviour becomes more and more awkward and erratic: while she takes her nightly walks around the castle, Laura is plagued with horrible nightmares, visions and hallucinations, and eventually there’s the appearance of bite marks on her chest. She begins to grow weaker and weaker, much like the other young women living nearby who all seem to suffer from the same inexplicable illness. You can probably see where all this is going, to modern readers the plot might seem rather predictable. However, Le Fanu adds another element to Carmilla’s weirdness by suggesting – not very subtly – that there might be something romantic about Carmilla’s keen interest in Laura:

“Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardor of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet over-powering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips traveled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, ‘You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one for ever.’ Then she had thrown herself back in her chair, with her small hands over her eyes, leaving me trembling.”

And so we have not only one of the first examples of a female vampire in literature, but a lesbian one to boot! Again, perhaps not so shocking to 21st century readers who have grown accustomed to just about everything, but for the late 1800s it’s pretty original. In fact, there’s sophistication to how Le Fanu merged the Victorian attitudes towards lesbian sexuality with vampire folklore, building on and playing with their shared theme of forbidden, secret desire. Much has been made of this by literary critics and historians, and you can find a lot of references to Carmilla in that particular context.

I’ve already revealed far too much, so I won’t say how the story ensues (the narrative is more complex than I made it seem, and not all that salacious). But I will say this: if you enjoy Gothic or vampire literature, this novella is a delight. If some parts or elements of the story seem familiar or predictable, it’s only because later writers used Le Fanu’s innovations.

Below you’ll find the links that will take you to the free e-book, one of the audiobook versions, and to a review of the recently released romance horror film adaptation of this story. If you want to learn more about Carmilla or its writer, log in to Pinterest and visit my board dedicated to Sheridan Le Fanu. And once you’ve read the book, consider posting your thoughts on it in the comments section – I’d love to hear your opinion!

Carmilla on Project Gutenberg (downloadable in epub, Kindle and other formats)

Carmilla on the Classic Ghost Stories Podcast: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 (listen online or download mp3 files)

A Screen Daily review of the film Carmilla, released in 2019

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